By Senior Airman Steve Bauer, 30th Space Wing Public Affairs
/ Published November 18, 2010
SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. -- On Nov. 16, aerospace engineering students at California Polytechnic State University here put the finishing touches on a project slated to carry the first education package on a NASA expendable launch vehicle (Taurus XL) scheduled to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base on Feb. 23, 2011.
The efforts of several hundred students from Cal Poly, Montana State University, Mont., University of Colorado - Boulder, Colo., and the Kentucky Space Consortium, Ky., reached a significant milestone as their three, mini research satellites, or CubSats, were encapsulated in a Poly Picosatellite Orbital Deployer, or PPOD, container that is now ready for final review and integration onto the third stage of the Taurus XL launch vehicle.
"For everyone involved, this is a really great day," said Jordi Puig-Suari, a Cal Poly professor of aerospace engineering. "The students have been working on this for several years now and they have stepped up their quality of work to match the NASA requirements. This is the culmination of many, many months of hard work by lots of students from all over the country."
Both the PPOD and CubeSat projects were developed at Cal Poly and Stanford University's Space Systems Development Lab for use on NASA's Educational Launch of Nanosatellite, or ELaNa missions. These projects have initiated a domino effect of academic interest among the aerospace engineering community throughout America.
"To be able to go out and touch as many students as possible is one of the goals of the ELaNa Project," said Garrett Skrobot, an ELaNa mission project manager. "Three and a half years ago, when we first kicked all of this off, the goal was to fly one CubeSat. Now, I want to see a healthy launch opportunity for educational packages throughout the U.S."
The basic idea was to develop standardized PPOD and CubeSat systems to increase the students' chances of completing their satellite projects and witnessing the satellites launched before they graduate, said Professor Puig-Suari.
"We have developed a standardized deployment mechanism called the PPOD that fits these satellites and attaches them to the launch vehicle and carries them to orbit and deploys them at the right time," said the professor. "Any satellite that matches the standard can fit inside the PPOD."
One important constraint each student must consider while constructing the body of the CubeSat in order for a proper PPOD fit is the satellite's dimensions. Each CubeSat must be exactly four inches cubed. The overall volume of the satellite is about one quart in which students are able to configure the satellite with the software and power needed to collect and send data back to Earth throughout the course of its mission.
Each of the CubeSats were designed to fulfill a particular mission. The mission of the Montana State University satellite, Explorer 1 Prime, is to study variations of the Van Allen radiation belts. The goal of the satellite designed at the University of Colorado - Boulder, the Hermes CubeSat Project, is to design a reproducible satellite bus that can be used for future missions. For the Kentucky Space Consortium's satellite, KySat-1 Project, the mission is to provide opportunities for hands-on learning in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) disciplines.
"The CubeSats were selected a few years ago and we have worked with them through the entire integration process, getting the CubeSats ready for this moment," said Larry Fineberg, a NASA systems and integration engineer.
Over the years, NASA has played an instrumental role in developing educational programs for students who are interested in space exploration.
"This experience for the students is invaluable," Professor Puig-Suari said. "NASA is a great motivator because the students know that they are going to be reviewed by a board of NASA launch professionals throughout the process. This gets everyone really serious, really fast. This is a life changing experience for them."
The complexity of coordinating, constructing, testing, finalizing and preparing the CubeSats for integration into the PPOD, demanded much time and effort of the students from the moment of their satellite's conception to its end state.
"We had a pretty rough summer getting the hardware to do what it needed to do," said Nicole Doyle, a student of aerospace science at the University of Colorado. "We put in a lot of 80-hour work weeks, so to finally see the CubeSat in the PPOD was a huge deal. This is a big milestone for all of the students."
The anticipation is mounting among the students for Vandenberg AFB's launch of the Taurus XL, which will catapult the students' hard work into low Earth orbit. The PPOD, housing three CubeSats, will be sent to NASA approximately 30 days prior to the launch to be attached to the launch vehicle.
"This will be my first launch with a CubeSat I have worked on in which I will see the PPOD go from review to its final integration onto the launch vehicle," said Sam Bowman, an aerospace engineering student at Cal Poly. "I can hardly imagine the feeling that all of us will get on the day of the launch - it is really going to be amazing."
The first flight of an ELaNA educational package will be one of many for NASA. Similar student projects are already in the works and are scheduled for flight in 2011. Although, the Feb. 23 launch at Vandenberg AFB will be the first opportunity Project ELaNa will have to live up to the project's mission statement: Launching education into space.